Johnson's loyalty rewarded with hometown victory

July 15, 2012
Craig DeVrieze, special to PGATOUR.COM

SILVIS, Ill. -- One walk past a hillside, 18th-hole amphitheater packed with what seemed like half of the State of Iowa wasn't enough for native Hawkeye Zach Johnson Sunday at the John Deere Classic.


Johnson will head this week to the year's third major, the British Open, with his "fifth major" in hand after a brilliant 6-iron to within a foot from a fairway bunker helped close out a two holes of sudden death with Troy Matteson at the finishing hole at TPC Deere Run.

Johnson emerged the ultimate survivor on a day rife with drama, thrills and a more than a few spills - including matching, water-logged double bogeys on the first playoff hole at Deere Run's 18th.

The ninth victory of the 36-year-old Johnson's career was as emotional as it was hard-earned. And it was emotional not just for Johnson.

A Sunday turnout large enough to force tournament officials to find alternative parking lots was peopled with fans pulling loud and hard for Johnson.

"It was awesome," the native of nearby Cedar Rapids said of his multiple 18th hole receptions. "It was tremendous. A great sight. And I have had that kind of support when I have missed cuts here. It shows what this community is all about."

Johnson replaces three-time defending champion Steve Stricker, another Midwest-bred winner who personifies the Quad-Cities tight-knit, smalltown nature. Stricker's bid to become the fourth man to win the same event four times in succession came apart with three loose drives on the back nine. His final round 70 marked the first time in 15 rounds the Madison, Wis., resident failed to score in the 60s and he finished tied for fifth, four shots shy of a four-peat.

"All in all, it was a good week," Stricker said. "It was fun trying to do it. I gave it a good rip but came up a few short."

Johnson moved to the top of the leaderboard with a back-nine 32 en route to a bogey-free 65, his 16th round in the 60s at a golf course he has played more than any other on TOUR. He finished second to Stricker in 2009 and was third a year ago. He first walked to the 18th green Sunday to rabid applause while holding a two-shot lead. But almost as soon as the din of that reception died, he heard a roar from the par-5 17th that he knew could only mean somebody eagled in the final pairing behind him.

Updated standings
Zach Johnson moved to No. 2 in the latest standings with his victory at the John Deere Classic. Standings

That was Matteson, the first-, second- and third-round leader, who joined Johnson at 20-under 264 when the Iowa boy's 20-foot bid for a winning birdie grazed the cup and Matteson parred in from the leftside trees.

The Texan Matteson found the trees again on the first playoff hole and then hooked his approach into the greenside pond. Johnson followed by rinsing his approach from the same left fairway bunker where Stricker's miraculous birdie booked his third straight win a year earlier. But the Iowa guy made ammends from the same bunker on the second playoff hole and improved to 3-0 in sudden death in his career.

"To lose to a shot like that, it's unbelievable," said Matteson, whose eagle roll at 17 covered 59 feet and whose consolation prize as runner-up was a berth in his first British Open this week. "He drove it in that bunker twice and figured out a way to win. It's a great story, you know. Hometown kid. It was really good."

Born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which lies roughly 90 miles to the west of the Quad-Cities, Johnson years earlier labeled the JDC his "fifth major." He has served as player representative on the tourney's executive board since 2005 and has been a enthusiastic ambassador for the smalltown affair in locker rooms across the TOUR.

Early exemptions at TPC Deere Run, while Johnson was playing on the Hooters Tour and the Tour, helped the self-made champion become a world-class player after holding the fourth position as a junior at Drake University, the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship.

He repaid the favor by becoming the first and only reigning Masters champ to tee it up in the Quad-Cities after a breakthrough win at Augusta in 2007.

Shot of the Day: Johnson

Zach Johnson sticks his 193-yard approach shot on the 2nd playoff hole to 1 foot, tapping-in for victory.

Johnson stopped short of calling Sunday's victory his most gratifying behind the Masters, but said, "I am really going to enjoy this one because this is extremely special."

The win was Johnson's second of the season, following an emotional victory at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial days after his usual caddie, Damon Green, lost his father to cancer. Sunday, Green was busy finishing 17th at the U.S. Senior Open Championship and Mike Bender, the coach Johnson credited with reconstructing his swing years ago, was on his bag.

Johnson moved into second place behind Tiger Woods in the FedExCup standings and all but booked a berth on a Ryder Cup team that will be coached by Davis Love III, his neighbor in his new hometown of St. Simons Island, Ga. He is fifth now on that points list.

And, of course, he is No. 1 - finally - at the John Deere Classic, where tourney leaders have told him they would understand should he take a year off to get a jump on preparing for the British Open.

That year away won't come next year, of course, and Johnson can't imagine when it might.

"It's never hard to come here," he said. "I'm going to keep coming back here and try to win every year."